Since the #MeToo movement, journalists feel emboldened to investigate stories of sexual abuse that would previously go unreported.
At a recent webinar hosted by the Global Investigative Journalism Network, three experienced reporters shared their tips, tools and methods to investigate cases of sexual violence that took place in times of peace and were not linked to domestic abuse.
Finding the ‘impossible’ evidence
It is a common misconception that there is "no evidence" of sexual abuse, said Lénaïg Bredoux, gender editor at Mediapart.
Although it can be harder to find than in other investigations, the documentation does exist, for example, communications between the suspect and the survivor, diary entries, letters, or even pictures proving that the two know each other.
"Victims often delete the contact with their abuser, but it is only in very exceptional cases that they have not told someone," she says. "This is proof that the victim already delivered the same story to someone else."
Not all survivors of sexual violence are happy to share the messages to and from the abuser. In this case, Bredoux explains that it is better to do so before the abuser can share the records of the communication and use it against the victim.
Freelance journalist Sophia Huang, who is known for propelling the MeToo movement in China, visits the place where the alleged abuse happened.
This helps her to find witnesses and sometimes discover CCTV footage. She says: "This evidence is important as you need it to persuade audiences to trust you when you go to print."
Forging the right relationship
According to Bredoux, the biggest difference between investigating sexual abuse and other crimes is the special relationship the journalist needs to create with a survivor.
It is important to maintain some distance, check every detail and sometimes doubt their story. Journalists must be completely transparent with the survivors, letting them know that investigation could take several months and that there is no guarantee it will be successful.
Journalists must also explain how and why they collect evidence and tell the survivors that their identity must stay confidential.
"It is also important that victims know that you have to interview the man they are accusing and that his voice will be in the story," she adds.
Understanding the trauma
Sometimes survivors can have trouble remembering because of trauma and humiliation, advises Ashwaq Masoodi, a freelance journalist based in India who writes on gender, women’s rights and sexual discrimination.
She once worked on a story where a woman was saying contradictory things. "Initially, my reaction was to doubt her and assume this woman was lying," she says. "But it is important to remember that trauma impacts the brain and how it works."
Masoodi also highlighted cases where victims were drugged, which affected their recollection of the events.
Recognising the impact on the reporter
Telling stories of sexual abuse can be mentally and emotionally draining for journalists and even pose a threat to their safety.
Writing in a country where survivors are labelled as risks to national security, Huang has received threats from the government over her reporting and in 2019 she was detained in prison for several months.
"It is quite difficult to handle the traumas in my personal life, but like most survivors, I find power the more people I speak to," she says. "Publishing articles empowers me and it will empower more women to come forward."
She recommends that those working in a similar landscape ask a lawyer for advice.
Choosing the right language
A journalist’s language is always important but especially when covering a subject that is still considered taboo.
Huang said that it is important not to sensationalise a story or write it as a scandal.
When addressing the survivor, she advised questioning the system rather the person. For example, do not ask questions like 'why did you not stop him?' but instead ask, 'why did you not feel like you could go to the police?’.
Masoodi also highlighted the importance of definitions and how we portray the people and their story.
"You cannot call rape 'non-consensual sex'. Rape has nothing to do with sex, only to do with power," she says. "I ask the survivor how she wants to be described, let her pick the words that fit her."
Dealing with perpetrators of abuse
Institutions where sexual abuse has taken place might be reluctant to contribute to a story, saying that there is an ongoing internal investigation or that it is a private matter.
Bredoux is always careful not to share her sources or the story when she contacts the institutions but instead asks them questions to see if they will speak to her.
Continuing the relationship long after the story ends
Bredoux said it is important to check-in with the survivors after the story is published and ask if the investigation has changed anything in their lives.
She also believes a reporter should always leave the door open so that the survivors know they can contact them whenever they need.
Join us at our next digital journalism conference Newsrewired from 1 December 2020 for four days of industry expert panel discussions and workshops. Visit newsrewired.com for event agenda and tickets.